The state visit of Irish President Michael D Higgins to England this week was more than a mere symbolic gesture. It marks a new era of Anglo Irish relations.
Much has been written about the significance of Martin McGuinness attending a banquet hosted by the Queen at Windsor Castle. When the Queen visited Ireland in 2011 Sinn Fein boycotted the official ceremonies and the famous handshake took place at a staged encounter between Elizabeth and McGuinness in Belfast.
So by attending there has been all the usual analysis about the importance of McGuinness going to the event and taking part in the toast to the Queen.
This is no doubt of great importance, but it does somehow leave one person out of the equation whose courage and magnanimity in hosting the event has been forgotten in all the talk of McGuinness – and that is the Queen herself.
Let’s not forget that she too is a victim of the Troubles, her second cousin and the uncle to her husband, Earl Mountbatten, was killed by the IRA in 1979. Mountbatten was very close to both Elizabeth who called him “Uncle Dickie” and her son Prince Charles for whom he was a role model and mentor.
Mountbatten was blown up in his boat Shadow V whilst lobster fishing in Sligo. His 14-year-old grandson Nicholas, the 83-year-old Lady Brabourne and a 15-year-old boy from Fermanagh, Paul Maxwell, also lost their lives in the blast.
Afterwards Gerry Adams was quoted by the Daily Telegraph as saying: “He knew the danger involved in coming to this country. In my opinion, the IRA achieved its objective: people started paying attention to what was happening in Ireland.”
There was no mention of the two boys, or the 83-year-old woman in Adams’ statement but the message was clear: the British Royal Family was not welcome in Ireland, and the price of a visit was death, not just for them but for anyone else, man woman or child who happened to be with them at the time.
At Lord Mountbatten’s memorial service in December 1979, Prince Charles lashed out at “the kind of subhuman extremist that blows people up when he feels like it”.
This week former IRA commander McGuinness, resplendent in white tie and tails, took dinner with Prince Charles’ mother, and formally toasted her health.
No doubt that was an uncomfortable moment for McGuinness and no doubt there will be elements within republicanism who do not agree with his gesture.
But the action of the Queen is something else altogether. In her speech she said: ‘‘We are walking together to a better, more stable future. We remember our past but no longer will we let our past ensnare our future. That is the greatest gift we can give succeeding generations.’’ This raises two questions: one specifically for loyalists, and one for the rest of society here.
The first is simply to ask those who profess devotion to Crown and country, whether in criticising the Queen for hosting the visit, entertaining McGuinness at her table, and promoting reconciliation whether they are in some way questioning her loyalty to herself?
It is really hard to understand that position, or indeed the allegations made by some that she has been manipulated into this. For the Queen these matters are deeply personal and if she had not wished to shake McGuinness’s hand in Belfast, or invite him to her dinner this could have been avoided without putting either state visit in jeopardy.
The second is that, as President Higgins said before he made the trip, the pain and suffering has not gone away from victims, whoever and wherever they are. The wrongs that have been inflicted, and the pain and hurt caused cannot and should not be airbrushed away. They need to be dealt with.
In her words and actions the Queen has shown leadership, not just as a head of state, but also as a victim who has felt the pain and presumably experienced the deep anger of those bereaved in such shocking circumstances. She has also had to endure those who inflicted the suffering go on to justify the atrocity.
Our political leaders should be encouraged and inspired by that. They need to show similar courage and get back together to resolve the issues of the past, putting victims interests’ first and create the circumstances whereby we all can truly move on and build a better land.